Rob Tannenbaum: The Alien Michael Jackson


Near the end of his eulogy for Elvis Presley in 1977, Lester Bangs wrote, “I can guarantee you one thing; we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis,” and it’s been deemed an augury ever since. So how do we account for the last few days, when a musician who hadn’t released a new album in eight years was streaming nonstop in — to use a legal phrase of our era — all electronic, computer-based, digital, wireless, and online media now known?

Everyone, it seems, loved Michael Jackson’s music, even law nerd Jeffrey Toobin, who dominated CNN’s coverage until their reporters landed in the country and their bookers corralled guests. The first hours of TV coverage — improvised, preposterous — could not settle on a tone or theme, except for this: The kid made the biggest album ever.

The subtext throughout, in the public equivalent of an autopsy, was How does a guy get to be so weird? I thought about artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who in the mid-nineties hired pollsters to determine the qualities people most liked to see in a painting and used the research to determine color, theme, and other elements in their canvasses.

Michael Jackson did something similar, without the formality of polling and with much better results: He was the most gifted, most imitated musician of the last 30 years. His adult solo career exploded with two LPs whose titles accurately described him — Off the Wall and Thriller — then maintained through three whose adjectives were just wishful: Bad, Dangerous, and, ironically, Invincible. (If you consider yourself a fan, but those last three aren’t in your iTunes, you may as well be following Jermaine.) For Jackson, the sequence may have felt like The One Before Thriller, Thriller, and The Three After Thriller. Many fans prefer Off the Wall — if Thriller is an impressive edifice, like a castle, then the former is a beach house — but more people bought Thriller, and that was the high Jackson kept chasing. For a few years, more people agreed on him than had agreed on Elvis, even. Michael came to confuse biggest with best and seemed to start picking his friends from The Guinness Book of Records.

I didn’t mention that Komar and Melamid are Russian-born Jews. Only outsiders can want so badly to fathom the inside. And Jackson felt like not just an outsider, apart even from his roughhousing brothers, but like an alien, which he expressed externally (at a White House visit, standing next to Nancy Reagan, she looked hale by comparison) and internally (he identified with E.T. and Peter Pan). Neither E.T. nor Peter Pan had a father, which Jackson may have envied, because his alienation probably originated at the hand of his abusive dad, whom Michael replaced with a surrogate: Motown. Not the people of Motown, whose talents Mike observed and enjoyed, but the company’s notion of unifying America through black pop music.

A pollster would likely find what Jackson discovered: The most popular singer in America would be black, but not too black; male, but not masculine; sensual, but not sexual. Even if he were built like Audrey Hepburn, his cohort would grow so broad that admirers would credit his music with having “transcended race.” It’s a strange way to describe a man who had a pigmentation disorder that turned parts of his black skin to pink; it’s also a sweet but false idea, that color can be transcended, no matter what our president looks like. Thriller was big; race is bigger. I remembered this after seeing a black writer’s scornful tweet late Thursday: “The Michael Jackson I loved, adored and looked up to died many years ago. This is just a formality.”

Michael Jackson exploitations — covers, benefits, samples, duets, repackages — will be Krakatoan in their volume and reach. It’s possible that his finances were a kind of Ponzi scheme, with debt traded for joint ventures only a sultan would bank on, and everyone who has paper on him will grab as much as their lawyers allow. Last night’s long, mangled BET Awards showed how messy it can be to honor Jackson, and it’ll only get messier. But this week, for a second time, we agree on Michael as we haven’t agreed on anything else. And all he had to do was die.